The ruckus and ballyhoo instigated by controversial immigration laws under the new administration has had me reflecting on my own purpose behind coming to the U.S. I belong to the 37.6% of Indians who have lived in the U.S for ten years or less. In fact, it’s been less than a year since I moved here. What was it that brought me halfway across the world, in a cramped 22-hour flight, far away from my loving family and the country, to which my heart and soul belong? What did I seek and what did I find?
To Indians, America is the land of opportunities. For most, it is the opportunity to make money. But thanks to my hard-working parents, I grew up with enough financial comfort to not know the pinch of poverty. Money wasn’t the bait that lured me here. I had just graduated with a PhD in Microbiology from one of the best institutes in India and experienced the broad realm of research. But to improve and innovate, I had to be at the cutting-edge of research, at the source of creativity, where research is a combination of thoughtful experimentation and successful collaboration. As Steve Jobs said “Innovation distinguishes between a leader and a follower”. I got my lucky break when one of the professors at Stanford University invited me to join his lab. Where better than that to be at the frontlines of research!
What I found when I arrived was a university which harnessed all the power of technology to make research life easier and quicker. Naturally, it also led me to think about how I could improve science back home. The piles of paperwork, the rigmarole of acquiring signatures from every person at every level of the administrative hierarchy, the constant lingering outside admin offices to politely badger them to process your order, all of which greatly hampered research in India could be circumvented by a few clicks on the computer. Without this unnecessary time-sink, researchers would be able to focus their entire energy on developing a good research question. All of this however, was what I had expected to find in the U.S.
What I didn’t expect was the positive influence that the place had on me both as a scientist and as an individual. The research environment here thrives on cooperation and collaboration, without any ulterior motives. The healthy competitive spirit of the place renewed my dwindling faith in the cooperative and candid nature of the scientific community. At a personal level, the emphasis on work-life balance here has given me enough time to think about my long-term goals. I could pause in my frenzy to publish in a high impact journal and explore fields outside academia that I am interested in. Be it science writing, data science or modern statistics, there are courses, seminars and workshops you can attend to hone your skills. There are talented career counselors and active alumni networks who are eager to help you set and realize your goals. It is a haven of resources, waiting to be utilized. These resources and respect for researchers as individuals is what I feel is lacking back in India.
The resources and innovations do come with a price tag. The seed of science research can bear fruit only when watered by money. Government funding for science research in India is around 8 billion, uncomparable to the 155 billion invested by the U.S federal government and the huge sums contributed by philanthropic billionaires of the country. As researchers, we have to continue to communicate the importance and necessity of investing in basic and applied research to the government. At the same time, introducing a technology-driven administration in universities will ensure proper allocation and channelization of funds, without being caught in the web of corruption.
Indian science has seen many great scientists in the past. Our space research is among the best in the world, as is evident from the whopping success of the Mars mission. But it is important to not stagnate now. It is important to change with time. If I could change one thing about my PhD life, I would choose to care a little less about science and a little more about the myriad of things life has to offer. And if I could change one thing about my institute, I would choose investment in technology over historical bureaucracy. We need to embrace technology, be more forthcoming and make science more enjoyable. Healthier work environments will mean happier researchers and better research. I do realize that I also have a responsibility towards making this happen. Writing about it is hopefully my first step.
Featured Image: Pixabay
About the author:
Shwetha Shivaprasad is a postdoctoral fellow in the Department of Microbiology and Immunology at Stanford University. She is a virologist by training and loves to learn something new everyday, expanding her knowledge base and skill set. She is currently in a phase of career exploration and trying her hand at science writing and reviewing. But nevertheless, she is irreversibly drawn towards the charm of a career in academia.
Sushama Sivakumar is a postdoctoral student in the lab of Dr. Hongtao Yu at UT Southwestern Medical center, TX, USA. She is interested in studying the regulatory mechanisms that control proper chromosome segregation during mammalian cell mitosis.
Roopsha Sengupta is establishing herself as a freelance editor. She did her PhD in the Institute of Molecular Pathology, Vienna and postdoctoral research at the University of Cambridge UK, specializing in the field of Epigenetics. She loves words, science and kids (not necessarily in that order!).